TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida prosecutor suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis opened his federal civil trial against the governor Tuesday with testimony that alleged his removal was based on his personal political positions on abortion and transgender rights.
Andrew Warren, a Democrat suspended from his twice-elected post as state attorney in Hillsborough County, sued DeSantis seeking his reinstatement.
DeSantis suspended Warren over the prosecutor’s signing of statements that said he would not pursue criminal charge s against seekers or providers of abortion or gender transition treatments, as well as his policies about not charging people with certain minor crimes.
Warren was the first witness in the case before U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee, where the Democrat spent the bulk of his testimony arguing that he was removed for exercising his free speech on abortion and transgender health care.
“As state attorney, I believe it is important for me to speak out,” he said.
The suspension came as DeSantis, a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, joined a wave of Republican opposition to progressive prosecutors who exercise discretion over whether to charge people with what they deem to be low-level crimes.
Warren was elected in 2016 and 2020 as prosecutor of Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa. He has said he thinks DeSantis was overturning the will of voters by removing him from office.
“There’s so much more at stake than my job. We’re not just fighting for me to do the job I was elected to do,” Warren said before the hearing began. “We’re fighting for the rights of voters across Florida to have the elected officials of their choice.”
In an executive order, DeSantis cited Warren's signing of statements about not prosecuting crimes pertaining to abortion or gender transition treatments. More than 90 district attorneys, state attorneys general and other elected prosecutors throughout the U.S. have signed a letter saying they don’t intend to prosecute people for seeking, providing or supporting abortions. Dozens of prosecutors and law enforcement leaders also signed the letter opposing the criminalization of gender transition treatments.
Florida has a 15-week abortion ban that took effect this year. The state does not have a law criminalizing gender transition treatments. Warren said his office had not received any criminal referrals related to the new abortion law or gender transition treatments.
The governor argued that Warren was seeking to pick and choose which laws to enforce, citing in his executive order the non-prosecution of crimes such as “trespassing at a business location, disorderly conduct, disorderly intoxication, and prostitution." Warren has disputed that, saying his office applies prosecutorial discretion over whether to bring charges in all cases, considering public safety concerns and other matters.
DeSantis' lawyers have said Warren cannot bring a free speech case because his signing of the statements amounted to official prosecutorial positions. George Levesque, an attorney representing the governor, said Warren's actions amounted to a functional veto of state law, emphasizing Warren's signing of the abortion letter.
“He pledged not to enforce the law,” Levesque told the judge.
The use of prosecutorial discretion by progressives elected around the country, typically regarding low-level crimes, has prompted pushback in recent years.
In San Francisco, voters in June recalled Chesa Boudin, a former public defender who was elected district attorney in 2019 on a criminal justice reform platform. Boudin faced criticism over rising crime after declining to prosecute most drug offenses. A similar effort to recall the Los Angeles district attorney failed to garner enough signatures this year.
The first day of Warren's trial also detailed the rushed process of physically removing Warren from office.
Warren testified that he first learned of his suspension through an email and was then quickly met in his office by an official from the governor's office and two sheriff’s deputies who escorted him out. He said he was not given time to gather personal belongings from his office.